CHESTER -Memorial Day brought the return of turf racing to Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort. The seven-furlong grass course at the Hancock County track will feature plenty of action during the coming months, as evidenced by the average of 9.6 horses per field for the first seven turf races that have been run.
West Virginia's horse racing heritage dates back well over two centuries, and Mountaineer is the state's only track to have offered turf events.
"Wheeling Downs, Shenandoah Downs, Charles Town, the old Tri-State Fair Grounds there's never been a grass race at any of them," notes Joe Narcavish, Mountaineer's racing secretary.
Photo by Belinda Madrid/Coady Photography
BY?A?HEAD — Lady Saxony, on the inside with Andrew Ramgeet aboard, won the first turf race of the 2012 Mountaineer season on Memorial Day. She’s Gonna Float, under Oswald Pereira, finished second by a head.
"Thistledown, near Cleveland, used to have a turf course, but they did away with it decades ago," Narcavish said. "Beulah Park, near Columbus, also used to have one, but it's long gone. That leaves Mountaineer in a pretty unique position as to what it can offer horsemen within this region."
It increases the variety of wagering opportunities as well. "Turf racing is a real pick-up for our bettors," said Mark Patterson, assistant racing secretary at Mountaineer and co-host of the track's in-house handicapping show. "Our full racing season doesn't actually kick in until we run on the grass.
"Horses who wouldn't normally come to Mountaineer ship in because of the turf," Patterson said. "And you don't see nearly as many prohibitive 1-2 and 3-5 favorites on the grass as you do on the dirt. Mutuel returns on the turf tend to be much more generous. And grass racing is a great spectacle. Fans look for it and love it."
Why some horses do or don't do well on the grass has long been a handicapping mystery, even among the great ones. Kelso, Secretariat and John Henry handled both surfaces. Manila was mediocre on the dirt, but a star on the grass. The opposite was true for Cigar.
Mountaineer turf races will be run this year at 10 distances, ranging from 4 furlongs to 2 miles. Racing on the grass will be offered through the Labor Day weekend.
Offerings will include a quartet of black-type events: the Independence Day and Firecracker Stakes, both at one mile for $75,000 purses on July 3; and the West Virginia Senate President's Cup and House of Delegates Speaker's Cup, both at one mile and 70 yards for $100,000 purses on the Aug. 4 West Virginia Derby undercard.
Turf racing at Mountaineer dates back to the track's eighth year of existence, when it was Waterford Park. On June 19, 1958, the 5-year-old mare Hero Hour won the very first grass race - clocking a final time of 1:25 1/5 for seven furlongs under apprentice jockey Robert Green. Hero Honor returned $31, $9 and $5.40 across the board.
Prior to MTR Gaming Group's purchase of Mountaineer, grass events were put on hiatus for more than a decade. Turf racing was resumed in the early 1990s, and has been a staple of the mid-season condition books ever since.
Major trainers consider Mountaineer's grass events to be attractive and lucrative. Hall of Famer Bill Mott, generally considered to be the premier turf conditioner in the country, sent the 4-year-old filly Mystic to win the 2011 House of Delegates Speaker's Cup. Mystic won by a neck over the even-money favorite Strike Impact, who was ridden by three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel.
The grass course has further been a showcase for locally-based speedsters. Fina Dur, a gelding trained by John W. Baird, twice set time standards on Mountaineer's dirt oval for 4 furlongs.
Fina Dur's record for that distance on that surface has been eclipsed. But Fina Dur's standard for five furlongs on the turf, :55.52, set in allowance company on Sept. 6, 1999, remains the course record today.
Record keeping within the whole of the thoroughbred racing industry is somewhat spotty. But the final time of :49.06 clocked by Kal El at Mountaineer for a $10,000 claiming tag on Aug. 5, 2008, appears to be a North American record for 4 furlongs on the turf.
The same appears to be true for the final time of 2:53.35 clocked by Inaugural Address for 1 miles on the turf in at Mountaineer on Aug. 15, 2005. The effort by Inaugural Address's occurred in starter allowance company.
Saturday's 10-race card at Mountaineer includes a trio of grass events, and there will be four on Sunday. From eight to 10 horses have been entered in each of those races.